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Cancer Survivorship and the Holidays

Allison Harvey, MPH, CHES, and Mandi Pratt-Chapman, MA, provide some insightful strategies to help you be present and kind to yourself during this holiday season.
December 2017 Vol 3 No 6
Allison Harvey, MPH, CHES
Senior Manager, Healthcare Professional Education, Institute for Patient-Centered Initiatives and Health Equity, George Washington University Cancer Center, Washington, DC
Mandi Pratt-Chapman, MA
Director, Institute for Patient-Centered Initiatives and Health Equity, and Associate Center Director, George Washington University Cancer Center, Washington, DC

The holidays! Cooking, cookies, and commercialism. Happiness and a hectic pace. Fall and winter seasons bring many opportunities for joy, along with stress, as we consider expectations of loved ones and family traditions. If you are in the middle of treatment, recently finished treatment, or even a long-term cancer survivor, you may have mixed feelings about the holiday season. There is no right way to experience the holidays. This article provides some simple strategies to help you be kind to yourself and present during this holiday season.

Stay Connected

The holidays are a time to reconnect with loved ones you may not have talked to for some time. Perhaps you fell out of touch throughout your treatment. Reach out to loved ones. Your friends and family may not know how best to reach out to you, and they may be waiting for you to let them know you are ready to reconnect. If you do not have loved ones who live near you, consider creating new relationships with like-minded people or connecting with a community center, a church, a synagogue, or another group that makes you feel welcome, relaxed, and supported.

Reuniting with people takes energy. If the thought of being with lots of people already exhausts you, it is also okay to limit interactions and give yourself the time you need to heal physically, emotionally, and spiritually. If you want to stay connected but don’t have the energy to travel, ask loved ones to come to you. Or if in-person visits even at your home feel daunting, phone, text, e-mail, and letter-writing are all options. Skype and FaceTime provide options to visit in a more personal way without needing to leave the comfort of your home.

Ask for What You Need

Everyone has a different experience with cancer and cancer survivorship. You may be used to taking on a certain role during the holidays. Be honest about what you need right now. Do you need someone else to host? To drive you somewhere? To do the cooking? To decorate? To wrap presents? Do you need time for rest? Do you need company? Your loved ones can best support you when you tell them what is most helpful to you at this time.

Some people are used to being the primary caregiver for the family. It can be difficult to ask for help, and awkward to accept it. Consider how much it means to you to be there for those you love—let others have a turn in supporting you.

Reduce Stress

The holidays can feel emotional for many reasons—changes in weather and light, memories of the past, and holiday gatherings may trigger depression, anxiety, fatigue, or other strong emotions. Consider ways to reduce stress. In addition to asking for help, consider shopping online rather than facing the holiday crowds. Keep things simple: make this the year of the handwritten letter. Often the best gift is recalling memories to a family member or a friend.

Remember to exercise and eat nutritiously. Holiday snacks are fun! Balance those with healthful foods and physical activity to relieve stress. Exercise as much as you can, based on your doctor’s recommendations and your knowledge of your own body. Limit alcohol, too, because it is a depressant and may make stressful situations feel worse.

Rest when you need to. Take naps. And do not be afraid to say no if someone asks you to do something you just do not have the strength or energy to do.

Look Out for Older Friends or Relatives

Regardless of where you are in your cancer survivorship journey, consider ways to look out for elders. This may be your spouse, your parents, family friends, or neighbors. One way to truly embrace the holiday season is to show older friends or family members you are thinking of them. This can be sending a simple card or making a brief phone call to pass along the true spirit of the season.

Step into the New Year

Your healthcare team can help you set activity goals for the new year based on your current health and on what you would like to achieve in the next 3 months. For example, would you like to find ways to be more active each day? Or are you interested in joining a specific class—such as yoga, dance, or swimming?

Any goal you set to increase your activity level is a step in the right direction. You could start with goals such as:

  • Take 500 more steps in your day, and use the stairs when they are available
  • Use your manual wheelchair at least 1 day a week
  • Do 10 minutes of stretching before bed

Talk with your navigator or other members of your healthcare team to find out if there is a free or low-cost exercise program available to you. For example, LIVESTRONG at the YMCA is an exercise program developed for people who have completed cancer treatment, and it is free to participants. If there is not a LIVESTRONG program at the YMCA near you, call the American Cancer Society or CancerCare to explore other options close to home.

For daily information on ways to engage in your care, follow us on Twitter @PreparedPatient.

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Patient Resources

The American Cancer Society
http://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/get-active.html
CancerCare
http://www.cancercare.org/support_groups
LIVESTRONG
http://www.livestrong.org
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Last modified: November 25, 2019

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